May 03, 2021
By Dom Gourlay
Meet Laundromat, the new project from Brighton-based musician and composer Toby Hayes. Perhaps best known as the main songwriter and vocalist with post-hardcore outfit Meet Me In St Louis, whose one and only album Variations On Swing came out to a wave of critical acclaim in 2007.
Since then, Hayes has embarked on numerous other projects before arriving at Laundromat two years ago. Having spent the previous few years travelling and briefly relocating in China and Berlin before eventually settling in Brighton, Hayes found himself writing pieces of music that just needed the addition of a few finishing touches. Fast forward to November 2019 with a bunch of a songs, Hayes put together a band and played his first (and only) show as Laundromat at The Bees Mouth in Brighton.
2020 should have seen a year of showcase festivals and shows to follow, but the Covid-19 pandemic struck putting those plans on hold. Except when it came to releasing music, of course. So, in April 2020, the first three Laundromat recordings emerged in the shape of the Blue EP. Containing a diverse array of sounds and influences ranging from Beck and Broadcast to Ennio Morricone and Kim Deal, it set the scene impeccably for what was to follow.
So, in November of last year a second EP came along entitled Green. However, the best was yet to come and duly arrived last month in the form of Red. Comprised of three more pieces from Laundromat’s ever-expanding body of work, it’s arguably Toby Hayes’ most accomplished collection of songs to date.
Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Your third EP Red came out in April. How long have the three EPs been in the making? The lyrics seem to be about the present, particularly in a social and political context?
Toby Hayes: The project started around five years ago but at that point I was just trying things. There was so much time spent where I’d tell my friends “I’m working on this record!” and everyone would ask about it every few months and I’d still be working on it. It just took years to try and work out what I was going to do because I wasn’t really excited about anything I was making. Then after I’d been faffing about for absolutely ages, that’s when I stumbled across the vibe of some of the songs that have ended up on these EPs. Once that exploration was over it probably only took the same amount of time for a normal record but the actual development took years. Then towards the end, most of the lyrics were finished off just before the songs were recorded. They were recorded towards the end of 2019 so I guess the lyrics are reasonably current. Although I’d like to think they can apply whenever, especially now.
Did the pandemic and ensuing lockdown slow things down or even change the way you approached writing and working on these songs?
Toby Hayes: It did affect everything. I had no expectations with releasing the EPs. I’m really proud of them so was just happy to get these songs out there. In some ways, I didn’t really mind what people thought of them. It was more a relief to get them out there. Then literally as we dropped the first tune, it got a bit exciting and things started happening. We were meant to go in and play a radio session for Marc Riley but then Covid happened and all that went out the window. So, it massively affected how things were going to pan out but then it’s also allowed me to just focus on releasing the EPs and not think about playing live or touring at all. Which is something I definitely want to do but its also a lot of hard work and takes a lot of thinking.
Does it feel like your momentum got stopped at that point?
Yeah, I guess so. It totally did feel like that. Whenever I’d explain what’s happened to my friends, they’d end up feeling a bit heartbroken for me because it had taken so long to get to this point. Yet for some reason I didn’t feel that sense of loss. It was something that affected everyone so I just cracked on with doing whatever I could. It was a bit weird and there were definitely some gear changes. I’m really glad it looks like things are starting to happen again. I’ve just announced a show in August this morning which I’m quite excited about. It felt very surreal in a way!
Some of the arrangements sound quite complex, particularly when it comes to playing them live? Will you be playing on your own?
I’ve got a band together. It’s a pretty standard set-up; bass, guitar, drums and some keys. The drummer also triggers a bunch of samples. We’ve managed to reduce it down to just the most important stuff. I think we’re kind of getting away with it but then we’ve only done one show, and that was in November 2019 just before we started releasing music.
That must be quite surreal having done the one show then seeing live music grind to a standstill because of the pandemic?
It is very strange! Particularly for the other people in the project as they came to Brighton with the intention of playing loads and loads of shows. It’s definitely surreal for this project because I’ve been releasing music for a long time now, yet this is the first time I’ve ever had such a positive response. So, it seems quite crazy to have only played one show which was nearly two years ago. I’m really looking forward to playing live again but I’m also quite nervous about it to the point where I sometimes think whether we even know how to do this anymore!
You’ve been involved in various other bands and projects before. Does this one feel as if it could be the most satisfying project you’ve worked on so far?
I guess in the past, I wasn’t very good at working out what exactly I wanted to do. I found myself years ago just playing loads of live shows without actually being into the music I was making or what my involvement in it was. I was just habitually doing it because that’s what I’ve always done. I didn’t really know how to change that which I think is why I spent so many years developing this project. I don’t really know what kind of music I want to make any more. It’s always been a bit of a knee jerk thing. Jump into this, get busy, crack on. So, this feels like the first time I’ve made music that’s actually representative of what I want it to be. It does feel really nice in that way. I’ve been proud of the other projects but I guess there’s more scope for this to feel really good about it.
None of the three EPs so far follow any set pattern or genre. Were the influences that went into making them as diverse as the resulting music sounds?
I’ve had so many different comments from people since putting the EPs out. All of them hearing different stuff, and mostly things I love. But at the same time a lot of it is stuff I don’t really listen to any more. People seem to see it as this really broad thing and I’m totally up for that.
If I was to cite three references that jump out for me, I’d probably say Beck, Stereolab and Steve Mason.
I can totally hear that. I do enjoy Beck’s music and I love The Beta Band although I’m not that familiar with Steve Mason’s solo material. It’s not necessarily stuff that I listen to or lean on for inspiration. The main thing I’ve listened to over the last few years would probably be The Breeders. I love Kim Deal’s songwriting so much. There’s something so immediate and welcoming about it. I wanted that kind of softness that translated into the heavier moments so it feels like a nursery rhyme. Her songs are really welcoming and I love that. But other than that, I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop and Can as well. Really repetitive stuff. I was really excited about trying to make a really repetitive groove into pop music. Something that I could listen to over and over again.
Which is where a lot of the best pop songs come from. This idea of getting a subliminal message into people’s heads through music.
Totally. That’s been a big thing for me. Repetition. Which can be really hard to write as well, just going around in circles. It can send you a bit nuts at times. You mentioned them earlier but Stereolab are another band whose music I’ve become really excited by more recently. They have a lot of these little sections in the middle that they end up making whole songs from.
You’re currently based in Brighton, but prior to that resided in various parts of the world?
Yeah. I used to be married and we just decided to go away and see what happened, really. We weren’t intending on coming back to the UK, so we went off round Asia and ended up moving to China. Then we started missing Europe so moved to Berlin. We moved around quite a bit and I put music on the back burner for a while. Yet within a few weeks of leaving the UK I found myself on my laptop trying to make little beats or whatever and became a bit obsessed with that. In the end, we ended up coming back to the UK after a year or so. I moved to London and that’s where all this stuff started. A really early incarnation of it. Just seeing what you could do on a laptop.
Now Brexit has finally happened, what kind of impact do you think that will have on artists when it comes to touring or even relocating in other parts of Europe? I don’t see how it can be anything other than detrimental.
It’s very scary. In the past with other bands, I’ve played in, getting over to mainland Europe and playing shows was a no brainer really. It was something every band did. It was a whole different world that opened my eyes to how different bands and musicians get treated in the UK from how they do everywhere else for starters. Touring the UK can be great but there’s only usually four or five dates then you’re done. Whereas soon as you cross over there it’s possible to drive from country to country which is just brilliant. So, I’m really curious to see how this all pans out. I’m not smart enough to hazard a guess but all the signs so far suggest its going to be chaos. I posted all the pre-orders for the EP yesterday and it was so expensive. The other two EPs both came out before Brexit went through, and they had the same number of pre-orders as this one yet the postage this time worked out around £100 more. For roughly the same number of EPs.
Congratulations on selling out all physical formats of your three EPs! Do you think more people have been purchasing music as a physical product – particularly vinyl – since the pandemic?
I’m not sure. It’s really hard to gauge because I hadn’t released anything for so long prior to the first EP last year. I was wondering about that and also whether more people were streaming music as well. But it’s hard to work out, especially with more people working from home. I read something about a year ago claiming people were listening to less music and more podcasts but I don’t know how true that is? Personally, I’ve definitely bought more records over the past year than I have in a long while so maybe that is the case.
What advice would you give to a new artist that’s just starting out?
The biggest thing I learned was to work out exactly what it is you want to do. Make the kind of music you want to make. I found it very easy to get caught up in stuff that I didn’t really want to do. So, I’d advise finding a way to be honest with yourself, work out what you love and just do that. Then put the work in!
Another big one for me is take your time, and don’t release any music until you’re absolutely certain its ready. Which I guess is what you’ve done with Laundromat?
There was literally no filter with any of the projects I’ve done in the past, so I totally agree with that. If I wrote a song it was going on the next record then I’d just smash through and release them all. The songs weren’t even developed. I’d record a song as soon as it was written so most of them ended up being massively under developed. Then as soon as we had ten recordings that would be the album, and out we’d go. Now I look back at it and realise I should have taken more time developing the songs first.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021?
I’m working on new stuff now which hopefully won’t take five years! My main focus at the minute is developing where I want it to go. We’d like to play a bunch of shows but it feels a bit too strange to jump on that too much right now so we’re trying to tentatively dip our toes into that. So, at the moment I’m mainly concentrating on writing and developing the sound more. I learned a lot from the first three EPs so I want to refine things a bit. It would be nice to spend a bit of time in a room with the band and try and make it into a good thing. The first show was great. I absolutely loved it. We played a tiny basement bar that my friend manages which was great because of the vibe, but equally I’ve often wondered how that might sound in a big room.
I guess being based in Brighton is pretty inspiring in itself? It’s such a creative and vibrant city with so much happening both musically and with the arts in general that it would be difficult not to take something from those surroundings.
There’s always something happening. Which is what I love about the place. Normally this time of year we’d be getting excited about The Great Escape. So, a lot of friends I’ve made over the years from all different places tend to come to Brighton once a year for that. Just going around town seeing people you haven’t seen for a year or more. I do love it here and will be staying put for the foreseeable future!